In Indonesia, keeping the religious status quo

April 20, 2010
indonesia muslim

Youths read the Koran in Indonesia's South Sulawesi province September 5, 2008/Yusuf Ahmad

 Even though Indonesia is officially secular, belonging to a religious group is part of your national identity — to the point of being listed on your identity card.

But don’t try to spread a religion that isn’t one of six recognised by the constitution or you could be accused of blasphemy.

You can’t leave blank the space for religion on an Indonesian ID card or else you are likely to face difficulty attending college or university, getting a job or even marrying and having children.

The issue has been in the news in Indonesia this week after the Constitutional Court upheld a challenge by rights groups and pluralists to a law that says Indonesians can only be Muslim (the overwhelming majority), Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu or a follower of Confucianism.

And although not categorised as blasphemous, stating you are an atheist or agnostic means you will not get anywhere with your ID. In many areas, stating you are an atheist might be responded with a puzzled face. 

In its final decision, the court said it feared “social conflicts and animosity among the people” if the law was repealed.

“If the law is revoked, there is a concern that misuse and blasphemy may arise,” judge Akil Mochtar said.

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Buddhist monks collecting donations in Magelang, central Java, May 7, 2009/Dwi Oblo

The law dates back to the 1960s when the country was still struggling to cement its independence in the face of a Communist insurgency and also against remote tribes and sects that still practiced human sacrifice.

It carries jail terms of up to five years and gives the president power to disband groups conducting blasphemous activities. Since then it has been used against several fringe groups, whose leaders and prophets have been punished.

In particular, the law has been used against the Ahmadiyya, who consider themselves Muslim but have been branded as heretical by the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest Islamic authority, as well as ordinary citizens.

The Ahmadis believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder if the sect in India in the 19th Century is the last prophet and messiah. Thought to number between 200,000 to two million in Indonesia (there are also significant communities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, their protests sometimes turned violent in the face of efforts to suppress them.
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Catholics at Easter morning mass in Saint Theresia church in Cipanas, Bogor, West Java April 4, 2010. /Crack Palinggi

One of the co-plaintiffs of the petition challenging the law was Abdurrahman Wahid, a moderate Muslim cleric who died last year and who was president from 1999-2001. He was also behind getting Confucianism added to the list of accepted religions, one of several steps he pushed through to allow Indonesia’s large Chinese population a more visible public profile.

In the series of hearings, scholars, experts, and religious groups gave their opinion, debating whether state should be allowed to interfere into a person’s belief, and whether the law was necessary.

While Protestant and Catholic organizations argued the law was discriminatory, mainstream Islamic groups — as well as representatives of the Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians — called on the court to retain the law.

The court read its verdict to keep the law – with the only dissenting vote coming from the benches sole woman judge — under heavy security and to an audience that included scores of  members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a conservative group known for picketing bars and restaurants frequented by non-Muslims during the fasting month of Ramadan.

The decision was welcomed with cries of “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).

“The problems (from the law) often created oppressive acts in the law’s implementation,” said justice Maria Farida Indrati, who also dissented when the court upheld a controversial pornography law.

Human Rights Watch and the Asia Human Rights Commission said the decision was a setback for democracy in the world’s most populous Muslim country. About 85 percent of its 235 million people are moderate Muslims, but a small and yet increasingly radical group plays a big role in influencing policy.

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Hindus welcome "Nyepi" (Hindu New Year) at the Prambanan temple in Yogyakarta March 25, 2009/Dwi Oblo

Despite upholding secularism, many areas in Indonesia have slowly adopted sharia-values in their bylaws; more young girls and women are wearing the headscarf. At its most extreme, Aceh province — the only one to use sharia for its legal code — last year passed a bylaw that threatened adulterers with being stoned to death.

Many in Indonesia, however, saw the court’s decision on Monday as sensibly upholding a status quo in a multi-ethnic country where many still observe traditional beliefs and superstitions despite also considering themselves true Muslims.

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